This article is part of our latest special report on Design, which is about getting personal with customization.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard once echoed with the sounds of hammering and welding as workers built battleships and aircraft carriers on the 300-acre campus bordering the East River.
Today, the Navy and its single-minded mission are long gone. In its place are hundreds of artisans, artists and manufacturers doing their own things. At a time when real estate developers are adding “maker spaces” to apartment buildings so that residents can flex their fingers after sitting in front of a computer screen all day, the Yard is a maker empire.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, the not-for-profit entity that manages the city-owned campus, has renovated most of the 70-odd buildings and rents them out at reduced rates, favoring tenants who employ local workers, supply local clients and, increasingly, embrace cutting-edge technology. “The point is not to nostalgically re-create manufacturing of the past,” said David Ehrenberg, the development corporation’s chief executive.
Enclosed by stone walls and wrought iron fencing, the Yard is mostly off-limits to the public. We barreled in (with permission) to see the range of custom furniture, fixtures and other artful fare being turned out. Here are a few of our favorites.
Frouwkje and Stéphane Pagani and their team of 10 get alabaster from Italy and rock crystal from Brazil, and they combine these and other stones with bronze and wood to produce light fixtures that have ended up at the Obama White House and the just-opened Tavern by WS in Hudson Yards.
Their standard fixture, the Aquila chandelier, hangs near the entry to their 5,000-square-foot studio, which has rooms for fabricating, finishing and assembly.
But the Aquila is just “a starting point,” said Mr. Pagani, for conversations with designers. In a project for Clodagh, the four-foot-square fixture mutated into three overlapping rectangles spanning 15 feet.
Jessica Banks occupies a mezzanine tucked under the eaves in the New Lab building, a massive 1900 structure where ship engines were once assembled, now an incubator for high-tech production companies. An M.I.T.-trained roboticist who designs kinetic furniture, she fits right in with fellow tenants here who make Mars rovers, grow synthetic leather and build bookshelf-size indoor farms.
Her folding Ollie chair flattens with the yank of a cord, and a satisfying clack! Her shimmying Float side table is composed of 27 wood-veneered cubes that repel one another (via internal magnets) and, at the same time, stick together (thanks to connecting stainless-steel tethers).
And what is that hanging from the ceiling? A polished-aluminum fixture that expands and contracts depending on the level of ambient noise. It casts reflections that dance overhead, fulfilling the designer’s goal at all times of “giving people a moment of wonder.”
A gallery had commissioned a series of vases for an upcoming event, and seven of the one-of-a-kind pieces had been completed on a recent afternoon in Gaetano Pesce’s studio. Each fantastical creation was made by pouring resin — a favorite material of the designer’s — over an egg-shaped wooden mold held upside down and then righting the mold as the viscous material began to harden. Mr. Pesce took a slate blue vase with a bulbous base and a thin, translucent top edge and tossed it on the concrete floor, where it bobbed around before settling, unharmed. “Something like this in glass would be impossible,” he said.
Now 80, the Italian-born Mr. Pesce has spent decades toying with the wobbly boundary between art and design. In the 1970s, he radicalized mass manufacturing by encouraging factory workers to customize pieces on the assembly line. His studio is crammed with chairs with insect-inspired backs, an enormous candy-colored chandelier with long spaghetti arms and dozens of framed sketches for dreamed-up products, including one for a pair of sunglasses with a sunburst encircling one lens and a moon the other.
Multiple works in progress keep him and several studio assistants busy into the evenings. That very day, he had brought from home a plywood form he had just made — a “positive” for a mold for the first in a series of vases based on the flags of different countries.
After the thick bark has been harvested from Portugal’s oak forests and wine stoppers have been punched out of the slabs, what happens to the leftover cork? This 20-year-old firm uses that “postindustrial waste,” as the co-chief executive Jennifer Biscoe put it, to make custom floor tiles in practically any color and pattern, including optical illusory designs that could give a room a fun-house feel.
It is a 20-step process that starts with flat sheets of cork obtained from a Portuguese partner. Using a sliding table saw, the sheets are cut into squares, hexagons and other shapes.
Harry Louis, Ms. Biscoe’s fellow chief executive, makes the water-based stains, wearing a white coverall to protect his street clothes. (The design firm Spacesmith specified pea green, gray blue and off-white for the children’s playroom at the Halletts Point development in Astoria.) Mr. Louis’s concoctions are rolled on, then the tiles dry on large custom-made racks like loaves of bread at a bakery.
A blackened-steel staircase spirals upward in a massive shed once used as an engine and pump house, now home to Ferra Designs. The staircase and two others like it are destined for duplexes at 130 William Street, a luxury high-rise in Lower Manhattan designed by the British architect David Adjaye.
The 40-person metalwork firm fabricates such staircases, along with feature walls and other large-scale works. Architects and designers arrive with renderings of the pieces they envision. “It is up to us,” said Robert Ferraroni, the company’s owner, “to figure out how to build the thing.”
Once the details are worked out, Ferra turns on its state-of-the-art machinery, including a press break that makes exacting bends in metal and a five-axis overhead router that can create 3-D hardware.
On a recent afternoon, a finisher in rubber boots and gloves was applying a statuary brown patina to custom bronze HVAC grilles for the floor of Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan. She is one of five women who work at Ferra, part of what Mr. Ferraroni, who has been in business since 1989, said was a resurgence of women in manufacturing.
“I can’t say I’m a fringe-y kind of girl,” said Brit Kleinman, the founder and creative director of AVO, a leather company, standing in stockinged feet in her cozy, sun-brightened workshop, showing a visitor a swatch of woven leather bordered with four-inch-long fringe. “But I’m fascinated with how it’s been used for adornment in different cultures.”
She and an employee spend most days wearing leggings and kneepads — and no shoes — as they crawl around tanned hides stretched out on the floor. They create custom colors for clients and apply patterns using traditional textile techniques such as block printing and batik. The leather sits for 24 hours, until the dye cures, then is topped by a clear protective coating.
It can be used for everything from wall tiles to pillow coverings. The architect Peter Marino recently placed a large order that includes leather for chair upholstery that is dyed a warm yellow and enlivened with whimsical hand-drawn spirals.
When a crumbling 19th-century building was dismantled as part of a Steiner NYC development in a corner of the Yard, John Randall, the owner of the woodworking company Bien Hecho, was called in to see if there was anything worth salvaging. There was.
In fact, Bien Hecho was able to use the shed’s pine timber and beams for paneling and tables in the new Wegmans supermarket on the Steiner site — part of the development corporation’s effort to open up portions of the Yard to the public.
In Mr. Randall’s own workshop, the sound of a sander was nearly deafening. Propped on sawhorses were white oak double doors that had been made for Le Crocodile, the new restaurant at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg. Twelve-foot ribbons of elm veneer were looped on a table, awaiting application on furnishings for a Delta Hotels project in Manhattan.
An outer room is used for woodworking classes. In the walnut slab workshop, students are able to do their own customization — of benches and coffee tables they can take home at the end of the class.